If unaware, as I was, that there’s a film festival devoted exclusively to mountain cinema, much less that it’s in its venerable 70th year, this and other pleasant surprises await in Trento, an exquisite small city at the base of the Dolomites in northern Italy. While no doubt overshadowed by Venice, as well as two of the foremost preservation-focused festivals in Bologna and Pordenone, Trento has clearly divined a recipe for longevity, if not for its neighbours’ glamour and prestige. At a time when similarly well-regarded specialty festivals are struggling – witness recent reports from Rotterdam – it warrants considering how the niche or micro-festival offers a model for sustainability in an increasingly precarious ecosystem. Given the environmental focus of Trento’s festival, it’s fitting that it has survived by developing strategies to adapt and evolve. Yet, the fact not a single locale is immune to external pressures was brought home in one of the locals’ most anticipated titles, Astra, Un Cinema Fatto in Casa (Astra, A Homemade Cinema, Andrea Tombini et al., Italy, 2022), an ode to the town’s long-running, recently shuttered art house.

Presided over for the last decade by indefatigable Head of Programming Sergio Fant, Trento attracts a uniquely hybrid audience of locals, cinephiles, and alpinists lured by a slate of films dominated by, on one hand, tales of mountain exploration and recreation, and on the other odes to environmental sustainability – discourses often operating at odds, as I would learn. With the festival’s major sponsors similarly ranging from the region’s hydroelectricity supplier to sustainable vintners and recreational outfitters, there was the sense throughout of incongruous-seeming elements coming together in tenuous harmony over shared investments in (as the festival’s motto sums up) “Mountains & Culture.”

To kick off celebration of its milestone year, the opening ceremonies and inaugural screening were staged in Viscontian splendour within the Grand Hall of 13th century Castello del Buonconsiglio and recently restored Teatro Sociale respectively, and in Italian style both featured lengthy monologues by local magistrates before the start of festivities. Tributes were bestowed posthumously on the intrepid cinematographer Mario Fantin, whose restored 1955 film Italia K2 (Marcello Baldi, Italy), which documents the first Italian expedition to the summit of the world’s second-highest peak, opened the festival; and in person, 60 years after he first attended the festival, on filmmaker and “montagnard” Luc Moullet, whose rapturous report “Nécessité de Trento,” penned for Cahiers du cinema as a novice critic, remains the definitive appreciation.1

Opening night of the 70th Trento Film Festival in the Castello del Buonconsiglio and Teatro Sociale

As a first-time attendee who identifies as neither a mountain cinema enthusiast nor an alpinist, I’d learned of the festival from colleagues at the University of Innsbruck where I’m currently faculty-in-residence as a Fulbright visiting scholar. Drawn by the dual enticements of its landmark anniversary and (I was assured) enchanting setting, I confess the line-up of films was a tertiary attraction. Already an outlier in the Tyrolean Alps as a non-skier and non-Germanophone, my crossing the border for a festival focused on mountain culture promised to position me further as an outsider. Moreover, having assumed that the festival program’s inclusion of English-language synopses meant I could expect that screenings would feature English subtitling, I learned otherwise upon arrival. (Its being Italy, I’d been instead focused on confirming that there would be none of the dreaded dubbing.) Having pitifully little facility with Italian despite being only one generation removed from my Sicilian ancestors, I appealed to festival staff who attributed the solely Italian subtitling to their largely local constituency. I’ll suggest here what I did not there, since they were good enough not to call me out as an ugly American: while commending the festival’s locavore leanings, I would nonetheless counter that, in a region abutting German-, Swiss, and French-speaking nations, that was itself until WWII’s end part of Austria, Trento might benefit from a lingua franca that would entice more attendees over the border. 

Unsolicited Anglo-centric advice aside, as a long-time if intermittent festival-goer I revelled in the refreshing lack of long lines and sell-outs that increasingly characterises bigger festivals; here one could roll up minutes beforehand and secure a seat for the next show at any of the festival’s venues – all of them in close proximity, congenially staffed, and conveniently equipped with espresso bars for fuelling four-film-a-day festivalgoers. Not that the festival seemed underattended; to the contrary, the turnout was consistently solid despite its being shoulder season in a town blessedly free of tour buses and other markers of mass tourism. Appreciating Trento’s wariness of drawing the hordes that flock to Florence and Venice, I noted nonetheless that the festival’s marketing team was not above some alluring promotional key art featuring a winsome woman swimming au naturel in a mountain lake – an image subject to censoring, I learned, when deemed in need of obscuring of her naked form. Thinking it too added a note incongruous with the festival brand, I much preferred the jauntily retro festival trailer shown before each screening. 

However hobbled by my lack of linguistic aptitude, what happened each time the lights dimmed was by no means alienating but rather deeply invigorating as a film-going experience. Reminded of Bong Joon-ho’s encouragement, in his 2021 Oscars acceptance speech, “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” I took heart and, turning down a kindly staff-person’s offer to loan me a translation device, anticipating that it would detract from the spectatorial experience, I gratefully accepted other offers from festival staff of a list of “Anglophone-friendly” titles and, even more generously, an invitation to attend jury screenings of competition films (where English subtitles were provided to assist in their deliberations). Cobbling together a short list of screenings I could comprehend, I saw it grow longer still upon seeing that a good number of films focusing on our non-verbal animal brethren featured little, if any, dialogue. Better yet, this meant I could steer clear of a number of titles whose glorification of extreme sports and its GoPro-wielding practitioners I wished to avoid. Nonetheless I regret missing out on a special screening of juror Michelangelo Frammartino’s Il Buco (Italy, 2021), one of this year’s most admired films, along with Berlinale favourite A Piece of Sky (Michael Koch, Switzerland/Germany, 2022), award-winning Water Has No Borders (Maradia Tsaava, Georgia, 2021), and Lassù (Up There, Bartolomeo Pampaloni, France/Italy, 2022), about a Palermo bricklayer turned self-appointed prophet whose hermetic hillside existence has produced a transcendent temple of outsider art now under threat from over-tourism.

Though I regularly proselytise on behalf of art film taken to its extreme in what’s come to be known as “slow cinema,” my taste runs more to talky works absorbed by the human condition; put another way, I’m someone who seeks out neither silent cinema nor IMAX films, and while I enjoy Planet Earth I don’t go in for Animal Planet. So I was surprised to find myself captivated and moved by largely speechless cinematic forays into animal habitats and remote depopulated wilderness. Viewing films devoid of dialogue or denied any clarifying translation, I was driven to focus more intently on the visual aesthetics as well as on non-dialogical sound. While mostly rewarding, as I’ll soon relay, this reliance on showing over telling was occasionally for the worse, mostly to do with obtrusive scoring and overuse of drone shots.

Surely the film festival least likely to be accused of speciesism, those above mentioned explorations of unpeopled space were most consummately realised in the dialogue-free documentary Il Contatto (Andrea Dalpian, Italy, 2022), in which a pair of infant wolves are incrementally reintroduced into the wild. Devoid of human presence save some early sequences with scientists seen half-offscreen administering food and care, Dalpian adopts an increasingly de-anthropocentric view as the wolves grow up and, by the final sequence, films from their nocturnal perspective (albeit by means of a head-mounted camera and lacking the heightened lupine senses). It’s appropriately disconcerting, positioning us at an uncomfortable remove from our sight-oriented species, both as humans and as film-viewers. 

Wolves’ repopulation appeared elsewhere to be highly divisive, with much mention of their endangering livestock and making shepherds’ lives harder. Sebastian Mulder’s ingenuous short Naya – Der Wald Hat Tausend Augen (Naya: The Forest Has a Thousand Eyes, Netherland, 2021) compiled entirely of GPS and surveillance footage, tracks the 2018 news-making trans-European rambling of the eponymous wolf, the first in a century spotted in Belgium. Through his formal technique, Mulder reflexively addresses what Il Contatto and countless other wildlife-focused films (at Trento and elsewhere) resist: the question of what (or who) all this surveillance of wildlife is actually for. On multiple occasions I was reminded of the visual and ideological consonance between wildlife photographers wielding tripods and telephoto lenses and the scientists and hunters discharging guns (albeit the former to tranquilise not kill). 

Concern about their screentime notwithstanding, it certainly didn’t hurt that there were a plethora of adorable mountain-dwelling animals on display in Trento. It’s testament to my favourite of the festival shorts, Emilio Pallavicino’s La Signora di Zeri (The Lady of Zeri, Italy/UK, 2021), that I saw it sans translation of its titular talkative lead, an earthy Anna Magnani-lookalike shepherdess whose approach to parenting her flock has her speaking and interacting with them as one would human children (indeed she refers to them as “bambini”). What might seem mawkish instead showed Varda-like whimsy and affection for its lead subject, while subtly gesturing at how such alternative husbandry practices enhance both human and animal welfare.

Il Contatto & La Signora di Zeri

Also focused on the fading craft of shepherding, Al Amparo del Cielo (Diego Acosta, Chile, 2021) daringly chose the decidedly uncommercial approach of filming in 16mm black and white to evoke early 20th century travelogues. The only screening I noticed people walked out of, it’s a difficult but rewarding watch that combines the stark beauty of WPA documentaries, the surrealist sensibility of Buñuel’s Mexican films, and the ghostly mysticism of Herzog’s Fata Morgana (1971). Another Chilean film about sheepherding was recipient of Trento’s Grand Prize: Nicolàs Molina’s Gaucho Americano (2021) follows two Patagonian migrant laborers (one old, one young) through their season as hired hands on an Idaho ranch. Scrappier than other competition fare and less magisterial than Sweetgrass (2009), which shares its lamenting look at the realities of a world romanticised in Brokeback Mountain (2005), Molina’s poignant portrayal of its subjects’ precarious lives is touching but never cloying, while a scene in which the younger gaucho guns down a puma who’s been preying on the flock was nothing short of stupefying. 

Al Amparo del Cielo

Another work provoking much spectatorial marvelling, La Panthère des neiges (The Velvet Queen, Marie Amiguet and Vincent Munier, France, 2021), honoured as the Best Exploration or Adventure Film, proved too pretentious for some in its bromantic philosophising between Munier’s renowned wildlife photographer and writer-director Slyvain Tesson, but not for this less discerning mountain cinephile for whom the staggering cinematography and Herzog-like musings seduced. While nearly every film I saw at Trento found reason to reflect on the undeniably already-apparent signs of climate change, La Panthère des neiges’s powerfully resonant final image of its elusive subject gravely staring camera-ward comes close to dispelling what Tesson earlier rhapsodised about as the communicative gulf between us and animals, as the leopard’s returned gaze so clearly conveys an awareness of being watched – and at the risk of projecting, also seems to direct human-ward a silent rebuke at what we as a species have wrought, along with a plea or even a warning for us to act. 

I got my “slow cinema” fix with The Mountains Are a Dream That Come to Me (Cedric Cheung-Lau, US, 2020), a self-assured debut feature steeped in Weerasethakul-style spiritualism, concerning the crossing of paths of a middle-aged English woman trekking through Nepal and a young guide preparing to depart for a promised job in Dubai. Equally slow and beguiling was award-winner Dark Red Forest (Jin Huaqing, China, 2021), a stunningly filmed look at Tibetan nuns who, among other exacting rituals, spend the 100 coldest days of the year huddled in handmade mountainside huts; clearly #VanLife has nothing on them. Another testament to “slow but steady wins the race,” Akeji, le souffle de la montagne (Corentin Leconte and Mélanie Schaan, France, 2020), having its Italian premiere and recognised with a technical-artistic award, is a bittersweet Ozu-esque meditative portrait of an elderly Japanese couple – an accomplished painter and his wife – whose serene existence living and working in their remote wooded enclave comes up against the threats of old age and illness. 

Dark Red Forest

For all the festival’s appeals to eco-consciousness, preachiness was blessedly little on view, the exception being The Taking (Alexandre O. Phillippe, US, 2021), an inflated video essay on Monument Valley’s imperialist symbolism particularly as rendered in John Ford’s cinema. Also engaging the American Southwest but with a decidedly non-didactic approach, Jared Jakins’ directorial debut documentary feature Scenes from the Glittering World (US, 2021) follows and was made in collaboration with three indigenous adolescents (and with permission of their tribal elders) attending a remote high school in the Navajo Nation. Reminiscent of Steve James’ Hoop Dreams (1995), David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000), and Jim McKay’s Our Song (2000), its account of one year in the life of these severely underserved youth was filmed pre-pandemic, so this story, like that of she-wolf Naya, leaves hanging the worrying question of how they have fared since. 

Two similarly titled films, one a short and one a feature, alike in subject and quality if not in tone, regard the Alpine region’s tourist-driven economy with outlooks absurdist and anxious respectively. Though the dispassionate gaze of Alpinestate (Michele Trentini, Italy, 2022) recalls the structuralist cinema of Akerman and Benning, its dwelling on its subjects exposes with more than a whiff of disdain the oddities of outdoor recreating and vacationing humans and the ever-present cameras endlessly mediating their engagement with nature. More measured in approach is the documentary feature Alpenland (Robert Schnabus, Austria, 2022) which profiles a cross-section of inhabitants who attest to the region’s looming environmental and social crisis caused by escalating luxury real estate development, mass production, and the ski economy. The film’s one note of hope lies with the next generation’s commitment to carry on their family and local traditions, though whether that will prove enough to overcome competing forces seems uncertain.  

While one might expect that a program comprising entirely mountain cinema might prove so homogeneous as to keep gems from shining as prominently, instead it served to amplify the relative weakness of films seen in close succession with others treating similar subject matter far more masterfully. While I grew increasingly irritated by the ski-bum subjects and unengaging structure of The Sanctity of Space (Renan Ozturl and Freddie Wilkinson, US, 2021), The Last Mountain (Chris Terrill, UK, 2021) won me over despite its echoing premise also unfolding around lives lost scaling mountain peaks. Documenting the Himalayan disappearances (and presumed deaths) two decades apart of mother-son mountaineers Alison Hargreaves and Tom Ballard, the film follows the father and daughter left behind to carry on in their contrasting ways; the latter travels to Pakistan in search of her brother’s final resting spot and reunites with the local man who had squired her as an infant on the equivalent trip taken in the wake of her mother’s tragedy. Anchored by daughter Kate Ballard’s affecting onscreen presence and enhanced by Terrill’s use of family footage, The Last Mountain earned a well-deserved audience award. 

Another audience award awaited Miranda July-narrated recent festival favourite Fire of Love (Sara Dosa, Canada/US, 2022), which treats a similar pair of obsessive adventurers fated for foreshortened lives: married volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft, who together perished in an eruption in Japan in 1991. Entirely and inventively constructed out of the trove of archival materials the media-beloved and -savvy couple accumulated, Dosa’s French New Wave-inspired love letter to the impish pair is a lighter celebration of its subjects than that of The Last Mountain, yet they are companion pieces in their shared pondering of what propels some individuals towards almost certain early death in the course of their compulsive quests, and how the rest of us conceive of and cope with that approach to living so extremely fully in the present. 

On that note, and in closing, the paradox of all film festivals set within scenic environs – that one spends so much time in air-conditioned darkness gazing upon mediated simulations – applies exponentially at Trento, there being not only an array of gastronomic, oenological, and pastoral explorations at one’s feet, but also incessant reminders onscreen of the natural world beckoning. Yet it’s a productive paradox for leaving the audience at Trento relishing the alchemical riches in both spectatorial perception and environmental appreciation through this improbable marriage of movies and mountains.

Trento Film Festival
29 April – 8 May 2022
Festival website: https://trentofestival.it/en/


  1. Luc Moullet, “Nécessité de Trento,” Cahiers du cinéma, n. 153, March 1964): 45-53.

About The Author

Maria San Filippo is Associate Professor of Visual and Media Arts at Emerson College, and Editor of New Review of Film and Television Studies. She authored the Lambda Literary Award-winning The B Word: Bisexuality in Contemporary Film and Television (2013) and Provocauteurs and Provocations: Screening Sex in 21st Century Media (2021), both published by Indiana University Press, and edited the collection After ‘Happily Ever After’: Romantic Comedy in the Post-Romantic Age (Wayne State University Press, 2021). Her Queer Film Classics volume on Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior (2014) is forthcoming from McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2022. She chronicles 21st century film and film-going on her blog The Itinerant Cinephile (www.itinerantcinephile.com) and on Twitter (@cinemariasf) and Instagram (@itinerant_cinephile).

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